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Talent shortages are causing more Canadian businesses to look at newcomers as a badly needed source of labour – but some say the strategy may replicate past problems with funneling high-skilled migrants into lower-skilled jobs if key changes aren’t made.

“Right now, about half of newcomers to Canada are economic migrants,” says Pedro Barata, executive director of Future Skills Centre, a skills innovation and policy think tank launched by Blueprint, Toronto Metropolitan University and The Conference Board of Canada. “The target is 60 per cent by 2025.”

To help meet its goals – 465,000 new permanent residents in 2023, 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025 – the federal government redesigned Express Entry program. Launched in May, the program is designed to bring in workers with specific types of experience.

Over the summer, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) invited applicants with experience in skilled trades, health care, manufacturing and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). More recently, IRCC opened invitations to people with experience in the transportation, agriculture and agri-food industries.

By mid-October, IRCC had issued nearly 90,000 invitations to apply for Express Entry permanent residency in 2023 – almost double the 45,115 candidates invited in 2022.

It’s Canada’s most direct, strategic response yet to aligning labour market needs with economic migration, says Mr. Barata, adding that it’s a promising divergence from Canada’s historically “elite approach” to economic migration requiring university education, language skills and other conditions. Still, he wonders if it’s doing enough.

Canada not serving economic migrants ‘the right way’

Prior to the overhaul of the Express Entry program, a report by Employment and Social Development Canada on the foreign credential recognition program noted that university-educated immigrants were overrepresented in low- and medium-skill sectors, and under-represented in high-skilled employment.

New immigration measures risk repeating some of those previous patterns if significant adjustments aren’t made in both education and in employer and cultural attitudes about newcomers.

On attitude, Canada has long looked at immigration through the lens of the perceived refugee experience – one of desperation, survival and struggle, says Muraly Srinarayanathas, co-founder and chairman of Computek College, a private career college in southern Ontario offering training in higher-skilled areas like business, technology and health care to newcomers as well as second- and third-generation immigrants.

“There are also a lot of immigrants that come highly skilled, [with] foreign credentialing, and I don’t think Canada serves those different communities in the right way,” says Mr. Srinarayanathas. “It’s a real missed opportunity.”

Negative perceptions of immigrants and their motivations have historically enabled employers to exploit them by paying lower-than-market wages and worse working conditions than their Canadian-born workers, says a 2023 University of Alberta research paper. “Although skilled immigrants are highly qualified, professionally trained and economically motivated, they face individual-level challenges after arriving in Canada that restrain them from successfully integrating into the labour market,” the paper reads.

Solving education access is more straightforward than changing societal attitudes, but isn’t without pitfalls.

Mr. Srinarayanathas says for certain skills, like nursing, newcomers can start applying from their home country and then write their exam in Canada to get the credentials or designations necessary.

Others look to career colleges like Computek.

“Some of our personal support workers that graduate from the program interested in going into nursing get advanced standing at community colleges that run these nursing programs,” Mr. Srinarayanathas explains.

“There are pathways like the Labour Market Impact Assessment process but even [there], most of the hospitals or health care institutions are hiring them as nurses’ aides,” he continues, adding that the idea is that they’ll be able to get the hours they need to get their permanent residency.

“But technically under that LMIA process, they’re not supposed to do anything but work so they can’t study, but they have to prep for this nursing exam so that they can get their PR,” he says. “The point is: there are certain pathways, they’re very complicated, and if we are in desperate need of labour, it should be a very smooth process, right?”

Increasing quality of jobs critical to long-term success

Recognizing experience acquired outside of Canada is a critical step to newcomers’ abilities to gain steady, well-compensated work once they settle here.

In May, Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), a licensing and regulating body, became the first professional organization to remove Canadian work experience from its requirements. “Up until now, [newcomers] were driving a cab or working at a restaurant as the way to earn the hours to then be able to write the test to become an engineer,” says Mr. Barata at the Future Skills Centre.

Removing the Canadian experience requirement is meant to enable newcomers with engineering backgrounds to land engineering jobs.

“By the time you get to writing the test, you can show that you already have a running start, which is actually really important in accelerating integration,” says Mr. Barata. “It’s a great test case that we could probably translate into other occupations.”

From Mr. Barata’s perspective, it’s only a matter of time before that translation becomes mission-critical to the Canadian economy as rates of retirement outstrip birth rates:

“For every retiree, there are three working-age people and in the next decade, it’ll be two for every retiree.”

That’s not enough, says Mr. Barata. “From a demographic point of view, we need more people. We’re not going to remain competitive or maintain our quality of life, tax base and drive our productivity in both the long and short term unless we look at immigration.”

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